Background of Panic Disorders
Panic disorders are usually found in individuals who have had previous unexpected panic attacks and they worry about when they will have a future panic attack and what will happen. These disorders affect 2-4% of the population. They are more commonly diagnosed in women than in men and they can affect late adolescents to adults (usually in the mid 30’s). Anxiety and panic attacks can also happen to women postpartum.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an isolated period of time where one experiences intense fear and discomfort along with a host of other physical and cognitive symptoms.
Common Symptoms of Panic Attacks
- Shortness of breath
- Numbness or tingling
- Feeling of choking
- Racing heartbeat
- Shaking or trembling
- Fear of losing control and going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Feelings of unreality & being detached from yourself
A panic attack is the body’s natural reaction to a situation that is feared and dangerous. Although oftentimes, panic attacks can occur when there is no real danger and other panic attacks can occur for no reason at all.
Interestingly, panic attacks, themselves, are not dangerous in and of themselves, however people with panic disorders usually do not believe this and thus react to them with intense fear and anxiety.
Agoraphobia is worth addressing because it is often associated with panic disorders. Agoraphobia is when a person feels intense fear and dread of certain situations and places that they feel would be hard to escape or get help if they felt a moment of panic. Oftentimes, this can manifest itself in someone being afraid to leave their house along, or being in crowded areas that are unknown and feel “unsafe.” Sometimes being in these atmospheres can cause a panic attack.
How Are Panic Disorders Treated?
The most effective treatment for panic disorders is to combine graduated exposure and interoceptive exposure with relaxation training.
- Relaxation Training teaches the patient breathing and muscle relaxation with visualization exercises that help them calm down from a panic attack as well as help them better cope with it.
- Interoceptive Training involves teaching a patient about what physically occurs during a panic attack and that it is not physically dangerous even though it may feel that way. The patient is then exposed to sensations of a panic attack to help them learn how to cope with it and prevent it from turning into a full blow panic attack
- Graduated exposure is the method of gradually exposing the patient to situations they may otherwise be fearful of and through that repeated exposure; the patient learns that the situation is benign.
For more questions you may have about panic disorders, a great resource is the American Psychological Association.
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